Racial slurs and racial emotions

Kuir ë Garang*

Note that people do not discriminate because they are powerful. They discriminate because they feel vulnerable and insecure. Racial slurs are indicators of internal vulnerabilities draped in feelings of superiority. 

Photo: TED Talks
White people control global economic and political power, but they do not control, nor have they ever pretended to possess, emotional power. So when it comes to emotions, power and privilege do not act as privileging and protective emotional walls. There are no special racial qualities that make people fond of or resistant to insults. People are socialized into them. Yet this simple fact is lost or overlooked by anti-racist campaigners, activists and fair-minded members of Western societies. So when Tim Wise argues, with good intentions I should say, that racial slurs like ‘honky’ and ‘cracker’ should be dismissed as silly and slurs like  the infamous ‘n-word’ should not, I do not feel supported; I feel patronized and infantilized.

Here, I know I am making a very unpopular argument in a society that is very unequal and oversensitive. However, it is unwise to place people’s emotional well-being at the mercy of the very people who discriminate against them. Admittedly, racism is a social reality in Canada, but why ask racists to be the emotional guardians of the very people they discriminate? Socially marginalized groups can ask to be afforded economic and political inclusion. That is a reasonable and necessary request. But asking for emotional protection from a discriminatory system is a socio-cultural impossibility. Emotional strength cannot be asked for but developed internally. Racial slurs will not stop by “making it awkward.” They are clever manifestations of insecurities and fears that are in most cases unfounded.

Indeed, teaching marginalized young people about inequality in Canada is imperative. However, it is very unfortunate that we have neglected to develop their emotional strength. In elementary and high school, Africans and students of African descent live with the specter of n-word. Unfortunately, what these students have is, ‘please don’t use that word it is offensive’, or they resort to fighting. In both cases, their emotional well-being is placed in the hands of the very people who discriminate against them. By all stretch of imagination, this is unconscionable.

However, I am not going to pretend that I have the magic solution to make these discriminated young people develop an impenetrable emotional strength. Yet, emotional strength is a necessary part of their well-being, so activists and parents need to devise ways to confront racial slurs without fights or emotional breakdowns. Activists tend to act sometimes as if white people are not human beings. White people would not feel the need to discriminate, insult others and fight for exclusion if they were emotionally secure. That we have to lament insults from white people more because of power and historical factors is to misunderstand the relationship between discrimination and power.

In his autobiography, Up from Slavery, the famous twentieth century African American educator, Booker T. Washington, said that “I would not permit no man, no matter his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” This is a timeless reminder to every parent. But how do we make sure that people who face racial slurs on regular basis avoid hate. The answer lies in why some white people utter the n-word in the first place.

Note that people do not discriminate because they are powerful. They discriminate because they feel vulnerable and insecure. Racial slurs are indicators of internal vulnerabilities draped in feelings of superiority. But I must emphasize that the problem is not in the slurs themselves but in what they signify. In most cases, the social problem is the emotional hurt they cause. However, the main concern is not just the emotional hurt but what what makes people cause hurt could lead to. For instance, physical harm.  Nonetheless, a high school student who hurls the n-word at an African student is not saying it because he feels powerful. He is saying it because he knows it can deeply hurt the African student. While it would not be advisable to tell the African student to dismiss the slur, it is advisable for the African student to interrogate why the white student utters the slur and why the white student feels it is necessary to emotionally hurt the African student. In the end, there is a need by this white student to feel important and bigger in order to cover up any feeling of insecurity, fear and vulnerability.

Undoubtedly, society will continue to fight against marginalization and racism for they are still social realities. But no matter how marginalized and oppressed people are, they should take care of their emotional strength outside the mainstream patronage.

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Kuir ë Garang is the editor of the 'THE PHILOSOPHICAL REFUGEE.' Follow him on Twitter @kuirthiy

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